Half of Syr­ian pop­u­la­tion ‘will need aid by end of year’, UN high com­mis­sioner for refugees says.

UN high com­mis­sioner for refugees says cri­sis may be worst human­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter it has dealt with, adding there had ‘not been an inch of progress towards a polit­i­cal solu­tion’ on Syria.


By: Mar­tin Chulov

More than half the pop­u­la­tion of Syria is likely to be in need of aid by the end of the year, the UN high com­mis­sioner for refugees has warned, while labelling the ever-​worsening cri­sis as the most seri­ous the global body has dealt with.

António Guter­res, who has led the UNHCR through the worst of the refugee crises in Afghanistan and Iraq, said the Syr­ian civil war was more bru­tal and destruc­tive than both and was already the worst human­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter since the end of the cold war.

His assess­ment came as the UN released new data on the num­bers of refugees, which revealed that 6.8 mil­lion Syr­i­ans need aid. That fig­ure is likely to reach at least 10 mil­lion, more than half the pre-​war pop­u­la­tion of the country.

Another UN body, Unicef, says half of those in need are children.

“I don’t remem­ber any other cri­sis where we are hav­ing 8,000 per day [flee­ing across bor­ders], every day since Feb­ru­ary,” Guter­res said in an inter­view with the Guardian. “There will very likely be 3.5 mil­lion by the end of the year. We will have half the pop­u­la­tion of Syria in dire need of assis­tance and this is incomprehensible.”

With the civil war now into its third year and increas­ingly tak­ing the shape of a proxy regional war fought across a sec­tar­ian fault­line, aid groups are mak­ing ever more stri­dent pre­dic­tions of a cat­a­strophic fund­ing shortfall.

Guter­res goes fur­ther, warn­ing that the mod­ern bound­aries of the Mid­dle East and the post-​Ottoman agree­ments that under­pin them may unravel if the cri­sis is not brought to an end.

“The polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy of the mod­ern Mid­dle East emerged from the Sykes-​Picot agree­ment with the excep­tion of the never-​resolved Israeli-​Palestinian sit­u­a­tion,” he said of the Anglo-​French deal at the end of the first world war that even­tu­ally formed the nation states of Syria and Lebanon. “The con­flict in Syria might for the first time put that polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy into question.”

The US sec­re­tary of state, John Kerry, and Syr­ian leader, Bashar al-​Assad, this week both warned of a par­ti­tion of the coun­try that would inevitably cause grave ram­i­fi­ca­tions in neigh­bour­ing Lebanon, Iraq and Jor­dan and beyond. Kerry appeared to advance the US posi­tion on Syria by sug­gest­ing an “enclave break-​up” could only be pre­vented by get­ting “every­body on the same page with respect to what post-​Assad Syria will look like”.

Assad, mean­while, reit­er­ated his ear­lier warn­ing that no coun­try in the region would be safe if the Syr­ian war, in which a major­ity Sunni oppo­si­tion is fight­ing a minor­ity Alaw­ite régime aligned to Shia Islam, led to the col­lapse of the embat­tled state’s borders.

UNHCR fig­ures show that close to 1.3 mil­lion Syr­i­ans have fled the coun­try in the past two years. The fig­ure is markedly lower than the num­bers that have left Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, but is increas­ing at a faster rate than at any point in either country.

In addi­tion, there are thought to be at least 3 mil­lion inter­nally dis­placed Syr­ian refugees, many of whom have lim­ited means to pro­vide for them­selves or their fam­i­lies. Com­mu­ni­ties in Syria’s war-​ravaged north, west and south are largely with­out elec­tric­ity and low on food and run­ning water.

Refugee camps in north­ern Jor­dan, south­ern Turkey and Lebanon’s Bekaa val­ley are over­whelmed with daily arrivals of refugees who have often made pre­car­i­ous jour­neys to escape nearby battlefields.

“This is the most bru­tal [con­flict], even with very bru­tal con­flicts else­where,” said Guter­res. “If one looks at the impact on the pop­u­la­tion, or the per­cent­age of the total pop­u­la­tion in need, I have no doubt that since the end of the cold war it is the worst. And it will become even worse still if there is no solution.

“My belief is that if we take all of these ele­ments, then this is the most dra­matic human­i­tar­ian cri­sis that we have ever faced. Then if we look at the geopo­lit­i­cal impli­ca­tions, I have no doubt that this is the most seri­ous that we have ever dealt with.”

Lebanon and Iraq are increas­ingly unable to deal with the Syr­ian spillover, which is dis­turb­ing already fraught sec­tar­ian power bases and strain­ing mea­gre resources dur­ing an eco­nomic down­turn brought on by the crisis.

“There is a real threat to Lebanon and Iraq,” said Guter­res. “Jor­dan is under seri­ous eco­nomic stress. We have the Palestinian/​Israeli ques­tion and the fact that the Syr­ian army has with­drawn from the Golan Heights. In the con­text of the Sunni-​Shia divide, all the key actors are involved. Even com­pared to Afghanistan, the geopo­lit­i­cal impli­ca­tions and the threat to global sta­bil­ity are pro­found. It’s the most dan­ger­ous of all crises.”

In an address to the United Nations secu­rity coun­cil on Thurs­day, Guter­res said there had “not been an inch of progress towards a polit­i­cal solution”.

Expand­ing on that to the Guardian, he said: “It is of enor­mous frus­tra­tion that we have come to such a sit­u­a­tion in global gov­er­nance that nobody can address it.”

Diplo­macy on Syria has failed to bridge a yawn­ing divide in views on what has fuelled the cri­sis and how best to deal with it. Rus­sia and China, two per­ma­nent mem­bers of the secu­rity coun­cil, have blocked moves towards more robust sup­port of the oppo­si­tion in Syria. The US and Europe have attempted to impose ever tougher sanc­tions on the Assad régime, but have balked at arm­ing the oppo­si­tion because of con­cerns about the influ­ence of al-​Qaida groups.

“I lived in a bipo­lar world,” said Guter­res. “Until the war in Iraq, I wit­nessed a unipo­lar world with one sin­gle super­power. Now we are in a clearly estab­lished multi-​polar world. New actors have emerged – the Brics: China, Rus­sia, Brazil, India. There is no longer a clear set of power rela­tions. There is no way to bring about con­sen­sus among global play­ers, or to bring about com­mon action. There is no capac­ity to pro­duce any solution.”

UN appeals for aid to Syria remain des­per­ately under-​funded with some agen­cies, includ­ing Unicef, report­ing a short­fall of more than 70%. The cri­sis was eased some­what on Thurs­day when Kuwait trans­ferred $300m (£196m) to the UN for Syr­ian relief. “[It] will be dis­trib­uted across all of our insti­tu­tions,” said Guter­res. Kuwait is the only Gulf coun­try that has hon­oured its promise through the mul­ti­lat­eral aid organisations.

“We can now put some money up front in Syria, but we are all in big trou­ble. Most of the west­ern coun­tries have huge bud­get dif­fi­cul­ties. Mov­ing towards 3 mil­lion refugees, there is no way that this can be dealt with.

“The sys­tem is at break­ing point. There is lim­ited capac­ity to take many more. Where are the peo­ple going to flee? Into the sea?”

Syr­ian refugees

1.35m: the num­ber of refugees flee­ing Syria who have sought pro­tec­tion in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, accord­ing to the UNHCR

48%: the per­cent­age – at least – of the refugee pop­u­la­tion who are under 18. Some 77% are women and children

$162.4m: the amount pledged by 4 April to Syria’s Regional Response Plan by inter­na­tional donors – just 33% of UNHCR’s requirements

10%: the increase in Lebanon’s pop­u­la­tion due to refugee move­ments. Jordan’s is up 6%

Source: The Guardian

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